NEW DELHI — When Savita Debnath was 14, two unknown men came to her impoverished village in eastern India, promising her a job cleaning houses for $40 a month in nearby Kolkata. When she got there, agents forced her onto a train to New Delhi and sold her.
The buyers were a family that abused her and forced her to work long days cooking, cleaning, caring for two young children and preparing for parties without pay or being allowed to contact her family.
"I worked from 6 a.m. until midnight or 1 a.m.," said Savita, now 15 and freed from her bondage. "When a dish burned, she slapped me many times. I'd cry for my mother, but the mistress ignored me."
A report released Thursday by Australia's Walk Free Foundation suggests that Savita's story is a common one, not just in India but worldwide. The 162-nation survey estimated that there are 29.8 million modern-day slaves, and that bondage in some form exists in most countries, including the United States, Canada, Japan and Western European nations.
Although other countries have a greater proportion of their population in bondage, India has by far the largest number, an estimated 13.9 million people. That is more than four times that of the No. 2 country, China, with 2.9 million. Pakistan ranked third, with 2.1 million.
Mauritania and Haiti had the highest percentage of the population in bondage, 4% and 2%, respectively.
Modern slavery, the report says, "takes many forms, and is known by many names. Whether it is called human trafficking, forced labor, slavery or slavery-like practices … victims of modern slavery have their freedom denied, and are used and controlled and exploited by another person for profit, sex or the thrill of domination."
In India, much of the traffic in enslaved domestic workers is organized by dubious employment agencies that are virtually unregulated despite a court order requiring the government to set operating guidelines.
"The placement agencies get all the money, and the poor girl gets nothing," said Rishi Kant, a social activist with Shakti Vahini, the New Delhi-based civic group that rescued Savita. "The girls are abused — mentally, sexually, physically. Officials don't care, and sometimes even want maids for their own houses, [which is] partly why they're silent on this."
Nick Grono, Walk Free's chief executive, said by phone that modern-day slavery in India includes children forced into marriages, entire lower-caste communities forced to work in brick kilns or quarries, and people lured by money lenders to assume debts that can last for generations.
In the case of enslaved domestic workers, middle- and upper-class families often happily pay as little as $33 a month to disreputable agents for 24/7 help, rather than paying the minimum wage of $125 a month and following other labor laws. The agents often ensure that ties are cut between girls — as young as 10 — and their families in rural villages. The girls' isolation is made worse because they often speak no Hindi, fear the police and are penniless, leaving them little way out of their plight.
"The family is duped, left thinking one day she'll come back with some money," Kant said. "And many employing the girls in Delhi are rich, powerful families, so authorities don't enforce the law."
There are signs of progress, said Shalini Grover, an analyst with New Delhi's Institute of Economic Growth, noting a increase in the number of part-time domestic workers who live outside their employers' homes, giving them greater economic leverage and control over their lives.
In terms of percentage of people in slavery, India is fourth on Walk Free's list. In Mauritania, which ranks first, one nongovernmental organization has estimated that as much as 20% of the population is enslaved, although Walk Free uses the more conservative figure of 4%. Slavery in Mauritania goes back generations and is deeply entrenched, although the country has banned the practice and signed international conventions against slavery and child labor.
"Indoctrination to ensure people in slavery accept their situation of ownership is a key feature of slavery in Mauritania," Walk Free's Global Slavery Index report says. "Without access to education or alternative means of subsistence, many believe that it is God's wish for them to be slaves."
At the other extreme, Iceland is estimated to have 100 slaves amid its population of 320,000. The United States ranks 134th, with an estimated 60,000 people in bondage.
The rankings are based on a compilation of government statistics, multilateral agency information, NGO studies and Walk Free's surveys. The organization provided drafts to all 162 countries six months ago, but for the most part, only developed countries responded, with largely positive or neutral responses. Walk Free hopes to continue refining the data.
Walk Free acknowledged the difficulties in compiling and refining data for the survey, its first, but said it hoped the index would widen the discussion about reducing modern-day slavery.
"Our data is the best out there, but it's a moving feast," Grono said. "You have to be an optimist in this industry, otherwise you'd slit your throat."
Magnier reported from New Delhi and Dixon from Johannesburg, South Africa. Tanvi Sharma in The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times